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The Peace Corps at 50
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PHOTOS: Alice Kelly's photo by Jen Guyton. Other photos courtesy of Andrew Wallace, Fortune Zuckerman, David Shen, and Maryam Talakoob

Alice Kelly, Ph.D. Candidate,
Environmental Science Policy, and Management

Service: Mozogo, Extreme North Province, Cameroon, 2004-06

Lasting impact, there: The park I helped the community get started is still open, their park organization is still running, and people still like to tell the story about the time I biked three kittens 12 kilometers down the road in a box strapped to my back.

Lasting impact, here: In a lot of ways the things that frustrated me the most during the Peace Corps, the things that I felt powerless to change while I was a volunteer, pushed me to do the research that I am currently doing. It changed my life.

Vivid memory: Trying to get a cotton mattress across the mountains on a motorcycle taxi in the pouring rain. That thing swelled up like a huge sponge. Wow, that taxi man hated me.

Advice for new volunteers: Two things: (1) Pride is a luxury that you cannot afford; (2) Let people be generous, no matter how poor they are.

Project included: Agroforestry (tree planting, integration of trees and shrubs into farming systems, improved cookstoves, etc.); HIV/AIDS education; and ecotourism — opening a national park to tourism that was formerly used only for research.

Career highlight: I am a Ph.D. candidate, a graduate student instructor, and I research national parks in northern Cameroon. The highlight of my academic career so far is a forthcoming publication in the Journal of Peasant Studies.

Most surprising: Mainly I was surprised by how little "in the dirt" work I did (though there was a good amount of that), and how much organizing, connecting, and attempting to empower people I ended up doing.

Ronald Sjostedt ,
Forestry, '82

Service: Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador, 1992-94

Projects included: Worked with the Charles Darwin Research Station and Galapagos National Park on an ongoing Agroforestry program with local farmers in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island. Ran a research nursery (for tropical hardwood species suitable for lumber that had minimal environmental impact on the National Park) and established and monitored tree plantations with farmers.

Current job: Middle school life science teacher.

Big Surprise: The Latin culture sense of time clashed with my "North American work ethic."

Lasting impact, there: I go back every year or so. The research has ended but our plantations are doing well.

Lasting impact, here: The Peace Corps was a very worthwhile time and I fell in love with the country. I liked it so much that I stayed in the Galapagos for almost eight more years in the capacity of Naturalist Guide for the Galapagos National Park. During that time, I married an Ecuadorean woman and we started a family two wonderful daughters!

Vivid memory: How about a graphic one? Throwing up for the first time in 20 years from my only real sickness (stomach poisoning?) during my PC stint!

Advice for new volunteers: It will challenge you both professionally and personally, but very worthwhile. .

David Shen,
Environmental Sciences '07

Service: Solwezi (Northwestern Province), Zambia, 2008-10

Most surprising: Learning the local language is an absolute must in order to get (almost) anything done. My local language was a Bantu one that was really challenging to learn, but with patience and perseverance, I became proficient enough to feel like a responsible and respected member of my community.

Vivid memory: When I experienced the wet/rainy season for the first time. I had never been tormented by such thunder, lightning, and rain it shook and soaked me to the core; it was a total body experience, to say the least!

Advice for new volunteers: Strap on the seatbelt, because Peace Corps service is like a roller coaster ride. It has highs and lows, goes fast and slow, turns here and there (and even loops), but ends before you know it or want it to. Most of all, you won't be the same afterward.

Project: The Linking Income, Food, and the Environment (LIFE) Project helps communities in/around protected forests to manage their natural resources and food security by promoting agroforestry, environmental education, and income generation, along with HIV/AIDS awareness.

PC highlight: Coordinated three weeklong training workshops for community-based organizations with host-country agencies, sponsored by USAID and PEPFAR. We educated a beekeeping group about apiculture basics, instructed a women's club on how to enhance child nutrition and improve chicken-raising and gardening, and advised an HIV/AIDS support group on peer outreach, counseling, and testing.

Lasting impact, there: I only hope that those whom I have helped remember and share with others what we did together through good times (and even the bad ones)!

Lasting impact, here: My service really opened my mind (along with eyes, ears, and heart) about the world, especially Africa, including its peoples, places, and even animals! Now I benefit from a greater understanding and appreciation of the international community and America's place in it.

Maryam Talakoob,
Political Economy of Natural Resources '83

Service: Gbarma (Lofa County) and Yekepa (Nimba County), Liberia, 1983-85

Most surprising: Poverty! I saw a level of poverty I had never seen before when I arrived at Roberts Field Airport in Liberia. I had never seen children running amok in the streets, without clothes and shoes, and with huge bellies. The feeling of shame I experienced surprised me the most.

Lasting impact, there: I have kept close contact with a Liberian friend, arranging to get him and his family out of Liberia during the civil war so they could come to the U.S. He is now going back to Liberia to start a water and latrine sanitation program [much like Talakoob's PC project] with the help of his family members.

Lasting impact, here: It increased my awareness of waste and reuse of material tremendously. Personally, I developed more tolerance for differences that I experience in my surroundings. I am a more patient and giving person than I used to be. I try not to take life for granted.

Advice for new volunteers: Observe everything, and never judge. Keep a journal, even if you write one line a day.

Vivid memory: The pickup roars and I shift to second gear, the crack widens amidst the red clay pasted thick on the ground ahead of me. I am rolling down the hill as humidity and heat intensify with the descent. My pickup produces a plume of dust behind as I approach a checkpoint crowded with women fruit sellers, adolescent boys, and a few undernourished-looking Liberian soldiers. “Fanta! Fanta! Fanta!...col' Fanta!” cries out a stocky-looking teenage boy. Breathing heavily, he approaches me at the window of the pickup. He peers into the shotgun and surveys the car. “For ya, 50 cents!” he cheers. His bright smile is a magnificent masterpiece of God's work, his teeth a pearl castle. I give him an American dollar bill and grab two bottles of ice-cold orange Fanta from the icebox full of slush perfectly balanced on his head. “Thank you, Yah! my friend,” I tell him. My Fanta boy is mesmerized by George's picture on the dollar bill! “Aha..! That one fine American president, oh!” he whispers, profoundly.

Projects included: Dug wells, installed hand pumps, constructed cement latrines and septic tanks, etc., for the United Nations Development Program in rural water and sanitation development. Taught local iron and construction workers how to build charcoal kilns to produce high-quality charcoal for sale, and later to construct solar food dryers, metal charcoal stoves, and mud stoves to reduce carbon footprint by replacing slash and burn and open-fire cooking. Wrote grant proposals to finance unfinished school projects in two townships.

Current job: Software engineer and data analyst for financial risk management group of Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco. Software consulting since 1990. Volunteer math tutor at SF schools and reading tutor at SF library.

Andrew Wallace,
Environmental Science '06

Service: Dialafara, Mali, 2007-09

Most surprising: The lack of misery. By and large everyone was pretty content, even without all the amenities that we find so essential, like vegetables. That's not to say that there were no problems, just that the ability of humans to be satisfied with the status quo is both amazing and frustrating.

Vivid memory: I stepped off the plane and was hit by the moist, hot air and a smell of galvanized rubber. As we drove through the outskirts of the city, cramped in the back of a 4x4 stuffed with sweaty trainees and luggage, we watched the Malians move around ghost-like through their tin-roofed shacks and lean-tos under the orange glow of the sodium lights. The exhaust from all of the vehicles overpowered my senses. I'm really here. This is it, I thought. We passed out of the city and on toward the training compound. The headlights illuminated the trees on either side of the dirt road but were unable to penetrate deep into the bush. As we pulled into the training site and disgorged from the 4x4s, we were welcomed by our training coordinator: “Aw bora aw ka so, aw nana aw ka so. You left your home. You have come home.” He was right.

Advice for new volunteers: Just take it day by day. Tens of thousands of volunteers have finished and so can you.

Projects: Helped women's associations with gardening and shea butter production, organized students to start a compost pit and plant trees at school, started a school library, and taught life science.

Current job: Peace Corps Fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University, and high school biology teacher at ELLIS Preparatory Academy in New York.

Lasting impact, there: A village that used to have no books now has more than 500. Literacy is only possible if there is something to read, and now my villagers have a chance.

Lasting impact, here: I have seen with my own eyes that family is where happiness resides. I am determined to have a big family and multiply the happiness.

Fortune Zuckerman,
Home Economics '61

Service: Colombia Cartagena, 1974 and 1976; Santa Marta, 1975; Bogota, 1977 (volunteer leader) and 1978-80 (associate Peace Corps director)

Most surprising: How much Colombia changed me for the better. I learned to be more sincere in greeting people initially, rather than a quick American, "How are you?" Sometimes it would take five minutes to say hello. ¿Como esta Usted? ¿Que has hecho? ¿Que hay de nuevo? ¿Que me cuentes?

I learned to value customs and family closeness, and to understand that we are all on the same playing field (I'm not better or less than anyone else).

I saw the beauty of the country, and the strength of the people and the PC volunteers who worked with them. Living in a country other than your own for six years has a true impact on you, and it lets you know a bit more about who you are, and your place in the world.

Lasting impact, here: Huge! In Colombia I met two children who were blind, and assisted them in reaching their school in Bogota. When I left, I decided to earn my master's degree in the field of peripatology at Boston College. This would allow me to train people who were blind to travel about safely, efficiently, and with confidence. Upon completing my degree in 1981, I took a job at Braille Institute in Los Angeles, and stayed with that organization for 22 years.

Upon retirement, I was offered a job at Cal State Los Angeles, where I am still involved in the field of blindness and visual impairment, and at 72 years of age, I am still eager to share all that I have been given as a result of being assigned to work in Colombia.

Projects included: Teaching skills to women, and later teenagers, including home improvement, hygiene, childcare, quilting, cooking/nutrition, first aid, gardening, and family planning. As a volunteer leader in Bogota, set up a program to serve the street children (gamins) living on the streets of major cities in Colombia.

Current career: University supervisor at California State University, Los Angeles, where I work as an adjunct in the Orientation and Mobility Program, mentoring student teachers as they earn their degrees to work in the field of blindness.

After the Peace Corps I worked with an agency for 22 years, first teaching orientation and mobility, and later as an area director for offices in Palm Springs/Rancho Mirage, and then in San Diego.

Lasting impact, there: Colombians were able to meet an American, work with an American, and appreciate an American. I was once in a tienda, a little store in our neighborhood, and a man asked me who I was. I told him I lived down the street. He said, "You don't/can't live here. There is running water only two hours a day [actually, in the middle of the night], and no American could live in these conditions." The people in the store assured him I was a neighbor, too, living with a Colombian family.

Vivid memory: In Santa Marta, where the snow from the Sierra Nevada Mountains melts down into the ocean, and the cactus seem to be three stories high, and the heat is dry and extremely hot, I was with my roommate, Jennifer, and made a comment that the people across the way with their mochillas (string bags) draped over their bodies, and cloth wrapped around them, sure looked funny. Jennifer looked at me and said, "You think we don't look funny to them?" I learned so much from that.

Advice for new volunteers: Live with the people, don't spend all of your time with your American friends. The less you are with them, the richer the experience.

Follow the customs of the country. What is acceptable in the USA may be unacceptable in your new country.